Monday, August 16, 2010

Productivity 101

The semester starts next week and I need a good sweeping out of the summer cobwebs to get going. Came across some really great ideas from Matt Might, assistant professor in the School of Computing at the University of Idaho.

"Optimize transaction costs:
1. Reduce transaction costs to engaging in productive behavior.
2. Erect transaction costs to engaging in counter-productive behavior.
3. Minimize opportunity cost. Do what you're best at doing, and partner with specialists when you need to do something else. (Emphasized by me because I think this elegantly sums up why wise collaborations and outsourcing are such a boon to productivity. As often as possible, do the thing that only you can do.)

In short, mold your life so that the path of least resistance is the path of maximum productivity. People are shocked when I tell them I'm lazy. I don't try to change the fact that I'm lazy; I exploit it. I try to make sure that the laziest thing I can do at any moment is what I should be doing...As an anecdote, I'll offer my experience with doing pull-ups. I wanted to start doing pull-ups, so I attached a portable pull-up bar to the door outside our bedroom. Every time I passed by, the transaction cost of a pull-up was near zero, so I did some pull-ups. Moreover, I didn't have to remember to do pull-ups, because I saw the pull-up bar all the time. One day, for whatever reason, the bar was taken down and placed on the floor. It's been on the floor for months, and I haven't done a pull-up since. It would take about ten seconds to re-install the bar, but I'm often in a rush, and that ten seconds has become a transaction cost."

Thanks to that salient anecdote, I am planning to install some metaphorical pull-up bars in my office. I was also inpired by his take on perfection paralyis:

"Treat perfection like a process, not an achievable state. Perfectionism is crippling to productivity. I've known academics that can't even start projects because of perfectionism. I know some academics that defend their lack of productivity by proudly proclaiming themselves to be perfectionists. I'm not so sure one should be proud of perfectionism. I don't think it's bad to want perfection; I just think it's unrealistic to expect it.
The metric academics need to hit is "good enough," and after that, "better than good enough," if time permits. Forget that the word perfect exists. Otherwise, one can sink endless amounts of time into a project long after the scientific mission was accomplished. One good-enough paper that got submitted is worth an infinite number of perfect papers that don't exist."

Wow. That is powerful, so let me write it again in all caps: "ONE GOOD-ENOUGH PAPER THAT GOT SUBMITTED IS WORTH AN INFINITE NUMBER OF PERFECT PAPERS THAT DON'T EXIST." (This goes for dissertations, too. Just finish the damn thing already.)

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